I have held 40 jobs in the past 20 years. I am told this is not unusual for someone struggling with mental illness like bipolar disorder. According to research, people who experience depression and cognitive dysfunction associated with bipolar disorder are more likely to have low job satisfaction, problems with being absent, and lower quality of work. Bipolar disorder and associated cognitive problems are linked to instability in employment.
I’m 37 years old. I got my first job in 2000; I was 16 years old. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2017. So, doing the math, 18 of those years, I was undiagnosed. Believe it or not, I have only been fired once, and it was after my diagnosis.
During that time, I’ve had lots of ideas about what I wanted to be and do for a career. Some were grandiose delusions, while others were feasible dreams if I could only keep it together. But that is the hardest part, keeping it together.
“Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by instability of mood — cycling episodes of mania, hypomania, and depression — that results in impaired “work and social functioning” — American Psychiatric Association
I wish that I had an answer for all the job-hopping. It is embarrassing to see it written out. I have had some really great jobs, some interesting jobs, and really terrible ones. Each job held its challenges. I think the best way to explain it is to look at the list and share some of my struggles. The list is in no particular order, and some names have been changed for privacy’s sake.
- Waitress at Pizza Hut — This was my first job at 16. I got in more trouble than I care to mention, but only got caught for some of it. My mother made me quit this job. It was the right decision.
- DSL Support at SBC Global — I thought tech support was more fun if you show up drunk. I don’t know how I kept this job.
- Student Athletic Trainer at College — I thought that I wanted to be a physical therapist because I went through so much as a kid. I have bad knees and spent a great deal of time in physical therapy. What I learned was that people were gross. I don’t like touching sweaty, stinky athletes. I also don’t like dislocated bones.
- Lifeguard at a FANCY Public Pool —The job was at first relatively easy, but then they let people inside the fence and all hell broke loose. You would think that a pool that was 5 foot deep at the deepest would have been easier to manage. The problem was that we had a huge slide and no one behaves on a slide. I spent my time fixing scrapes from the concrete and yanking kids out of the vortex created by the end of the slide. I was tough and they called me the “pool nazi” behind my back.
- Lifeguard REGULAR Public Pool — I quit lifeguarding after saving a very obese woman from the deep end of the pool. She was drunk and decided that she could suddenly swim. I was not, and am still not a strong swimmer. I think we both almost drowned that day. I walked out after and never returned.
- Stall Mucker for a Dairy Farm — I enjoyed this job. It was nasty, and I always smelled, but it wasn’t a bad job. It was too bad that I suddenly decided to move.
- Collections Agent at Cingular Wireless — This was a terrible job. I was responsible for calling people after Hurricane Katrina and asking for money. I cried myself to sleep most nights. I quickly found another job.
- Salesperson for Cutco Cutlery — This is a pyramid scheme with really great knives. Don’t go there, but do buy them.
- Call Center Employee for OfficeMax — I almost got fired from here, but I quit before they had the chance. I was hanging up on customers.
- Call Center Employee for Military Bank — I quit and flew off to England.
- Call Center Employee for Boise Cascade — Paper is boring.
- Salesperson for Hibbett Sports — The boss kept calling me a dyke behind my back. I cursed him and quit.
- Item Counter for Regis — I don’t remember why I even started this job.
- Sales Agent for Sprint — I only lasted a week.
- Student Worker in the Textbook Store at University — I dislocated my arm working here, but they didn’t care. So I tried other things to get by.
- Textbook Buyer — This is a frustrating, low paying job that I kept for one semester.
- Tour Guide in a Cavern — I messed up a lot here. I brought a dog to work, and I made up some of the tour information to make it sound cooler. The company was not good for me after that, or so I thought.
- Salesperson for Sports Advertisements — This lasted a few weeks only.
- Salesperson for RadioShack inside a Sams — My boss was aggressive, and I cried a lot. This was a very depressing time for me. It didn’t work out.
- A dispatcher for Ambulance Service — I worked 48-hour shifts on the weekends. I was wired all weekend on coffee and things I won’t mention. Luckily I got kicked out of the apartment I was staying in, so I had to move and find a new job.
- Trainer and Specialist at Apple Retail — I think this is one of my better jobs, but I left it for greener pastures.
- Archaeologist — I got attacked by a rattlesnake and a wild hog. Then the company that employed me when bankrupt.
- Technology Instructor at Public Library — This is one of the most frustrating jobs I’ve ever had. My boss was a master manipulator who destroyed my self-confidence and left nothing. The worst part is that no one cared about me or their jobs. I wanted so badly for this to be a good fit. I want to help people.
- Office Staff at Local Marina — Turns out that I’m awful at telling people where to park a boat. I like to think I’m an educated person, but this job took skills that I simply do not possess.
- Program Assistant and Tour Guide at a Fossil Museum — I had a blast here, but had trouble with attendance. I was drinking too much and did not know that I had a great opportunity.
- Public Safety Dispatcher at a University — I learned how that ex-cops are mean…so very mean.
- Executive Assistant for a Physical Plant at a University — This was another great job that I left to pursue a degree that I wouldn’t use.
- Hostess and Cigar Saleswoman at a visitor center — I never showed up sober.
- Hostess at O’Charleys — Nascar fans and too much beer…I hated this job.
- Office Assistant for an Audiologist — I didn’t have the money to buy the clothes that he wanted me to wear. So he bought me clothes and I got weirded out and stopped showing up. He was just nice.
- Book Seller for Books-a-million — I lasted one day because they asked me to clean poop off the walls. I thought I was too good to do that.
- Freelance Writer for Tire Website and a Penis Enlargement Website — I wrote a lot of these articles.
- Kitchen Staff at Fazolis — I fell and hurt myself here. They didn’t need me after that. It was a good job, and I loved the food.
- Delivered Newspapers — Delivering papers in the countryside at 3 am is frightening when you have a small bladder and no bathroom.
- Operations Assistant at a Coding School — I got fired from here. It’s a long story, but they closed, and I was first to go.
- Scraped Pillboxes at a Senior Living Pharmacy — I cut myself pretty bad, and they suggested I leave. So I did.
- Blackboard — I helped students and professors navigate all of the Blackboard and related systems.
- Hibbetts Sports — I thought helping people find shoes was…well boring.
- Self-Employed Technology Trainer. — This was my side hustle for several years.
- Assistant & Closing Coordinator for a Real Estate company — I’m working here now. I like it. I’m working on getting my real estate license.
Seeing it all written out, I’m still uneasy about it. I have never sought out this information, but when I started shredding old documents today and I started counting. The number multiplied. Had I looked back sooner, could I have seen how my disorder was affecting me?
The answer is that I’m not sure it would have helped. I could dwell on past, wallow in it even, but it won’t change where I am now. I have, in the past few years, taken big steps in my education and my personal life. I feel like I am taking a big step in being able to recognize this now. I could not have done this a couple of years ago, maybe not even a few months ago.
It is vital to have an honest discussion about your abilities and priorities as a person with bipolar disorder. Spend the time in therapy, take the medication that is right for you, and build a support network for those tougher than usual days. As your focus on stabilizing, your chances of enjoying your life more and holding down a good job improve dramatically.
Don’t count how many times you’ve done something wrong. Count how many times you’ve done something right.Dr. Ashley Dowdy
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Gilbert, E., & Marwaha, S. (2013). Predictors of employment in bipolar disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 145(2), 156–164. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2012.07.009
- Marwaha, S., Durrani, A., & Singh, S. (2013). Employment outcomes in people with bipolar disorder: A systematic review. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 128(3), 179–193. https://doi.org/10.1111/acps.12087
- O’Donnell, L. A. (2017). An investigation on predictors of occupational functioning in individuals with bipolar disorder (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/120711/lao_1.pdf?sequenc e=1&isAllowed=y